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Liberty, Nationalism, and the Republic

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books and culture

Liberty, Nationalism, and the Republic

Richard Brookhiser’s new book is an invaluable resource for understanding American exceptionalism. December 13, 2019
The Social Order

Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea, by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books, 304 pp., $28)

“How sweet it is to speak of good men . . . who ought to be deeply inscribed on your memories, and in your hearts,” said William Hamilton, an African-American orator and journalist, in a speech marking the end of slavery in New York in 1827. Hamilton’s speech is among many powerful and unknown events in American history brought to light by Richard Brookhiser’s Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea. Though Hamilton was speaking of members of the New York Manumission Society—an organization founded to promote the abolition of slavery—his words capture the essence of Brookhiser’s volume, which reads like a tribute to the men and women who forged and protected American liberty.

Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review, is a distinguished historian of the American Founding and author of highly regarded books on Washington, Hamilton, Madison, John Marshall, and other vital figures. He traces the evolution of America’s defining ideal through an examination of 13 documents, beginning with the minutes of the Jamestown General Assembly from 1619 and ending with Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Brandenburg Gate speech. He examines texts ranging from the familiar—Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—to the forgotten, such as the Flushing Remonstrance, an early defense of religious liberty sent to Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Amsterdam, in 1657. Brookhiser packs each brief chapter with new information and insights while holding true to familiar documents and unknown texts.

His chapter on the Constitution exemplifies his approach. Most enthusiasts for America’s past can recall the story of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but few know anything about one delegate, Delaware’s Jacob Broom, whose role in the events seems lost to history. No record even exists of what he looked like; Broom’s statue at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia shows him with a hand over his face. In the same chapter, Brookhiser cleverly demonstrates how the Constitution’s ban on monarchs and nobility, along with its silence on slavery, work together to put into practice the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” By explicitly banning some forms of hierarchy but leaving others unacknowledged, the Framers ensured that the Constitution could never be interpreted in such a way as to enforce social stratification.

Brookhiser does not present his book purely as history; Give Me Liberty is also an argument for American nationalism. As he sees it, “the unique feature of American nationalism is its concern for liberty.” Unlike French or British liberty, our nation’s version is “the real thing,” afforded to all Americans not because of their caste, creed, or color, but simply because they “are men and women.” This concern for true liberty is what makes American nationalism good, setting it apart from its more “sinister” forms in places like Russia and Turkey. Implicit in this argument is a rebuke of certain popular definitions of American nationalism, though Brookhiser doesn’t mention them directly. By seeing American nationalism as strictly rooted in the defense of liberty, he suggests that it’s not about immigration, citizenship, or economic justice—issues that define contemporary debates about the idea. While Brookhiser addresses these topics, he likely won’t change the minds of those who don’t already agree with him that American nationalism is solely about preserving and protecting liberty.

Give Me Liberty, nevertheless, shines as an amicus brief submitted in defense of an older understanding of American national identity. Accessible yet serious, Brookhiser has produced an invaluable resource for any citizen who seeks a better understanding of America’s exceptional idea.

Independence Hall (Photo: Keith Lance/iStock)

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